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The “forgotten” Rohingya people living as refugees in Bangladesh

The media is full of news about the recent visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma) made by the US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton. Mrs Clinton’s time with Aung San Suu Kyi and her meeting with the Burmese government are seen as hopeful signs that Burma’s rulers may finally be open to reform. But as these stirrings of optimism grow, there seems little hope for a change in the situation of Myanmar’s most persecuted people – the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who were persecuted by the military junta in Myanmar. In 1991, to flee persecution, a large number crossed the border into Bangladesh from the Arakan state of western Myanmar. Some estimates put the number of Rohingya in Bangladesh as high as 300,000. Around 35,000 of the displaced live in registered refugee camps and receive some aid from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But over a quarter of a million live around towns and villages along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where most live in miserable conditions.

Bangladesh is not a signatory to the International Refugee Convention, where countries agree to give refugees favorable treatment and access to services. Therefore, there is no official recognition of the Rohingya and their needs. Any assistance is provided by outside agencies. So for example, 21 primary schools are operated by the UN Children’s Fund alongside other NGOs.

Without any rights, the Rohingya face widespread discrimination in Bangladesh and NGOs have expressed regular concerns about intimidation and abuse of the refugees. In a recent article on the plight of the Rohingya, the Guardian highlights just one example, the case of a badly-burned young girl. The family who took her in as a servant tried to burn the orphan girl to death in order to hide their crimes against her. Doctors at the Lada refugee camp in southern Bangladesh have been trying to care for her, though she has only a slim chance of survival. Staff at the camp do not have access to the kind of advanced treatments which might save her.

Because of the pitiful conditions in which many Rohingya refugees live and the daily struggle of families simply to survive, the BBC has dubbed these people “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups”. Even if Myanmar’s rulers do now decide to relax their iron grip over the Burmese people, it is unlikely they will restore the rights of the Muslim Rohingya people to own land or receive state services. (In Myanmar, the Rohingya are even forbidden to marry and have children without government permission.) But until their citizenship is reinstated, these desperate people have nowhere to go and will continue to suffer abuse and the life of the unwanted.

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